Holiday food gatherings can be a joyous time for family and friends to get together, but oftentimes lots and lots of food leads to lots and lots of food waste.
Karen Blakeslee, coordinator of the Rapid Response Center in Kansas State University’s Department of Animal Sciences and Industry, says a bit of planning and attention to food safety principles can help to decrease the amount of food wasted during the holidays and year-round.
“From my own experience, I’ll sometimes go to the grocery store without a list,” Blakeslee says. “That’s not very smart on my part because then I end up buying things that I probably don’t need to buy.”
She’s not alone. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization reports that one-third of the food produced in the world is lost or wasted. That amounts to about $1 trillion per year in wasted food in developed and developing countries.
Yep, one trillion dollars.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also notes that of the 136 million tons of material that goes to U.S. landfills each year, about 22 percent of that is food waste. That’s 30 million tons.
“That’s really kind of mind-boggling,” Blakeslee says. “Composting and recycling have gone up, which is great. But there’s still a lot of food going down the drain.”
So, Blakeslee notes, it’s important that every consumer do their part to avoid food waste.
“It starts with planning at home,” she says. “Figure out what meals you’re going to make during the week. I know schedules are busy, but figure out what meals you know you are going to be able to eat at home. Shop for those items and try not to deviate from that. It will help you control your spending as well as how much you’re buying.”
Many major food chains have developed smart-phone apps to help with making a shopping list. Stores also offer digital coupons that can loaded to a shopper’s card.
“Use that technology,” Blakeslee says, “because it’s a great way to be more organized, plan and save some money at the same time.”
What about buying in bulk? Not always a good idea, according to Blakeslee.
“If you’re buying food in bulk quantities, buy something that you know you are truly going to use and have room to store, not just because it’s a good deal,” she says. “Sometimes what you buy at big box stores may not be a good deal in the long run because you end up throwing it away.”
In the home, Blakeslee says decreasing food waste could start by taking a look inside cabinets and the refrigerator.
“That gives you a chance to rotate food items, or use them up,” she says. “If you’ve got 10 cans of green beans, look to see what the dates are on them, rotate them and get those cans with the dates that are closer to today used up.”
After the meal, leftovers should be refrigerated or frozen immediately.
“Put leftovers in the refrigerator within two hours. Divide them up into smaller portions to chill faster and to help you easily use those leftovers,” says Blakeslee, adding that refrigerated leftovers should be eaten within 3-4 days.
If leftovers are frozen, they should be eaten within 4-6 months, she says.
For safety, leftovers should be reheated to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit, which can be measured with a food thermometer.
“They’re inexpensive, sometimes $5, but that can really decrease food waste in the long run,” Blakeslee says. “A food thermometer can help you control the quality of a food and prevent over-cooking the food. There are many uses for a food thermometer, not just to know the temperature for safety; it’s a way to improve food quality.”
Other food safety tips to keep in mind during the holidays include:
· Meats – Store and thaw raw meat on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. Place meat on a plate or tray to catch drips. Freeze for long term storage.
· Soups and casseroles – Store in small containers, rather than in a large pot. “I know of many foodborne illnesses that occur just because of putting large containers of hot food into the refrigerator,” Blakeslee says. “Take the time to divide it up into smaller containers so that they cool off faster.”
· Buffets – If you’re the host, make sure each dish has its own utensil so guests can avoid grabbing food by hand. Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold, and, “use a clean plate each time you go through the buffet,” Blakeslee says. “That cuts down the chance of cross-contamination.”
Many food safety measures are common sense, Blakeslee notes.
“Just be mindful of what you’re doing with your food,” she says. “Be mindful of what you’re shopping for, plan ahead and be mindful of the leftovers you have so that you use them and don’t lose them.”
She adds: “In this country, we are blessed to have access to a bountiful food supply. But even in our own backyards, we have a lot of people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. I think it’s good to be aware of that reality. I hope that would make all of us mindful of how we’re handling our food and spending our food-shopping dollars.”
For more holiday food safety tips, or to make contact with a food safety specialist, visit the K-State Research and Extension website, www.ksre.ksu.edu/foodsafety.
What do the dates mean?
Consumers may sometimes get confused about the dates that are on food products.
Those dates are included primarily for food quality reasons, according to food safety specialist Karen Blakeslee, coordinator of the Rapid Response Center in Kansas State University’s Department of Animal Sciences and Industry.
“Pay close attention to perishable foods, such as raw meat, eggs, or dairy products,” Blakeslee says. “Those kinds of foods have a short shelf life, and they have a date on the package. You can go maybe 2-3 days after, but especially with meats, you want to adhere to those dates.”
Here are general guidelines on dates commonly found on food products:
· The “Sell By” date tells the store how long to display the product for inventory management. It is not a safety date.
· The “Use By” date is the last date recommended for eating the product at its peak quality. You may be able to safely eat the food product after this date.
· The “Best if Used By” date indicates when the food will be of its best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
Blakeslee says in some cases, consumers should use their best judgment about whether a food is safe after the date indicated on the packaging. If the color, smell or appearance has changed, it could be due bacterial growth.
When in doubt, throw it out.